MY SEARCH FOR PAT KIRBY

My search for the singer Pat Kirby — an extraordinary artist — began last Monday, June 12, with a trip to the thrift store closest to my college, as I described here.  I’d amassed nearly thirty dollars of records, and the long-playing one by a singer I’d never heard of before caught my eye because of the cover photo, the Decca label (Decca in that period tended to be more rewarding than some lesser labels), the repertoire, and the identification that the orchestra was directed by Ralph Burns.

That the disc was also $1.49 minus the Monday 25% discount was also encouraging, and I thought there might be excellent musicians accompanying Miss Kirby.  I should point out that I had never heard a note of her singing, nor had I been of an age to see her perform on television.

And, having just come from teaching a class of mostly uninspired students, it is likely that the cover picture of Miss Kirby, sweet pedagogue, caught my eye.  I would have bet that her students were paying attention.  It might be silly to have an instant crush on a portrait of someone c. 1956, but I make no more apologies for myself than that.

Good songs, as well.

Before Monday evening, I had played the album four times, had spent a good deal of time searching for Miss Kirby, and had emailed several friends who are professional singers to say, “You have to listen to her.”  Rebecca Kilgore listened and approved: I knew I was on the right track.

At this point I invite readers to do just that. I confess that I had put the needle down on the first track hoping for a pleasing, competent singer but really searching for surprises from unannounced jazz stars.  They may well be there, but Miss Kirby took my attention wholly.

I hear a controlled passion, a lovely dramatic sense.  She understands the words, offers them with diction that is both natural and impressive.  Some passages of lyrics that I had never fully understood are clear for the first time.  Her rhythmic sense is splendid . . . and although she has a splendid vocal instrument, her voice is never the main subject.  It’s the song.  She’s not imitating anyone (although she reminds me ever so delicately of Teddi King) and her approach seems so unaffected but, as any singer would tell you, she is no amateur.  I hear a tender tremulous vibrato, full of emotion but Miss Kirby is in complete control, never over-dramatic.  Yet she can be almost saucy on DOWN WITH LOVE, which rises to a near-shout; however, her LOVER MAN is a young woman’s sweet series of wishes.  Her IN LOVE IN VAIN — backed only by a guitarist who might be Barry Galbraith and a string bassist — is beyond memorable.

I don’t know whether she or Burns or perhaps Milt Gabler chose the songs, but Miss Kirby shows tremendous courage in singing LOVER MAN with the potent shade of Billie hovering.  She manages to make me hear her on I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, making that song her own, not Mr. Sinatra’s.

I will put my adoration down for several paragraphs and offer a story, by John Fink, from the September 15, 1956 Chicago Tribune “TV Week” — full of attractive photographs of a dark-haired, pretty young woman, sipping soda through a straw, singing in front of an overhead microphone, demurely wearing a narrow-striped top. The story’s headline, in lower-case turquoise, is “once too shy to stand up and sing!”  I know the enthusiastic prose that one finds in weekly television guides, but at least Mr. Fink had offered a few facts.

Philadelphia has always been home base for Pat Kirby.  The songstress of the Tonight program, seen week days at 11 p. m. on Channel 5, started life there as Patricia Querubin, and did her first vocalizing with a high school band.  Too shy to stand up and sing, she sat at her piano at the rear of the stage.

Two years ago, after a shot at local radio, Pat was tapped for an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts appearance.  She won, then retired to Philadelphia to consider a Hollywood offer.  But Hollywood, she decided, was too far from home.

By that time Steve Allen had signed her up for guest appearances on Tonight, and she was staying in a Manhattan convent, returning to Philly on week-ends to be with her parents and three brothers.  She was signed as a regular on the program, and had begun to make records.  She knew she had really arrived when they asked her to make an album called “Pat Kirby Sings.”

The singer with the jet black hair and flashing black eyes stands 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and weighs a tidy 125 pounds.  Her father, a merchant mariner, is of Spanish descent; her mother comes of Irish stock.

Pat chooses her songs for the feeling in the lyrics and leans towards “standards” by Gershwin and Arlen and Rodgers and Hart.  “If the words don’t mean anything,” she says, “why bother pronouncing them.  You might just as well sing vowels.”

But her long range goal was to get married.  She was all of 20, and she had made up her mind.  Pat accomplished that last June.  The lucky fellow?  A boy back home in Philadelphia, of course.

For the moment, we can ignore all the stereotypes and sexism of 1956.

Here are the (uncredited) notes on the back of the Decca album:

Decca’s newest recording artist, Pat Kirby, is one of the most talented as well as the most attractive newcomers in show business. She appears several times a week over NBC Television, and hardboiled critics as well as enthusiastic watchers of Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show are already predicting that she will soon be one of the nation’s top-flight stars.

Born twenty-one years ago in Philadelphia, where she was raised, Pat Kirby comes from Irish and Spanish forbears — her real last name is Querubin.  She was educated at St. Francis Xavier Grammar School and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, and it was at the latter institution that Pat began to display her musical versatility.  In the school band she played the tympani, drums, piano, organ, and celeste — there seemed to be no instrument she could not master. There was only one thing that did not seem to interest her, and that was singing.  A vocal career was the last thing on her mind; her ambition was to play the drums in an all-girl orchestra.  It was only after she graduated that she took up singing because she thought the ability to sing might help her in show business.

Pat’s professional career began when she was offered occasional piano and singing jobs with small bands in and around Philadelphia.  She forsook the piano — reluctantly — when Buddy Williams engaged her as vocalist for his orchestra.  It was not long before she was featured with the band in such coveted showcases as the Bellevue-Stratford and Benjamin Franklin Hotels in Philadelphia, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and many other top spots.  A little more than a year ago, Pat began doing a “single.”  In November 1954, she gained national recognition by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program,  She also appeared for twenty weeks on “Get Happy,” a show emanating from Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, in which Pat was given a chance to act and ad-lib as well as sing.

This album furnishes proof that Pat Kirby has arrived.  The songs she sings are among America’s favorites, and she renders them all with a delicate and sure touch.  The songs themselves have a central theme.  Whether the numbers are Ballads, Rhythm Tunes, or Torch Songs, all of them answer the question posed in the title, “What Us This Thing Called Love?”  The arrangements for the numbers are unusually lush in scoring, and their enriched instrumentations furnish a worthy background for Pat Kirby’s voice. 

In writing this post, I have spent a good deal of energy chasing invisible cyber-rabbits.  I found out that after Miss Kirby had made this recording, she “abruptly retired,” although I saw mentions of her singing on the Merv Griffin Show c. 1960-62.  Did she retire as soon as she became pregnant?  Did she choose, a good Catholic, to forsake the bright lights for happy domesticity?  Did she miss performing? (Did Someone hasten her flight by behaving inappropriately to her? She was, as we say, both very attractive and very young.)  Decca, incidentally, seems to have had her record some pop singles, including the paper-thin TAMMY (circa 1957), and this Frank Loesser rarity, which might have had merit. And then, nothing.

I found out that Buddy Williams played drums and apparently had played them for Miller and one of the Dorseys.  Of course, no recordings from the period are listed in Tom Lord’s online discography, and there is no entry for Miss Kirby.  Or Miss Querubin.

There is a single by “Pat Kirby” of the theme from the motion picture SAYONARA, but it does not sound like the same singer.  There is no YouTube video of her, although there is televised evidence in the Paley Center (more about that shortly).  Facebook bristles with authorities, some quite incorrect and vehement about it, but no one responded to my request for information — from a group devoted to the dark corners of popular culture.  And I have little success with family-ancestry sites: her parents may have been Robert and Helen Querubin; her married name might have been Burgoyne.  Given that she was born in 1935 or so, I doubt that she will write to me to say, “Young man, you have gotten the facts of my life all wrong.”

However, I have a frustratingly lively lead that might lead nowhere: a Google search for Pat Kirby led me to the Paley Museum, which has two kinescopes of the Steve Allen show: on one she sings THE BOY NEXT DOOR, the other I’M GLAD THERE IS YOU.  And . . . on Trip Advisor, of all places, Liz M. from Philadelphia visited the Paley Museum and wrote this comment:

I visited here to see a video of my mom on the Steve Allen show from 60 years ago. She was young singer Pat Kirby who sang regularly with Andy Williams. They had 2 episodes.  It is so wild to see your mother in action years before you were born. My friend had never been there before and can’t wait to go back for special events.

I find that very touching, and Trip Advisor has a space to “ask Liz M. a question,” which I did.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Pat Kirby, who obviously wanted privacy after her brief intense turn in the spotlight, might have planned it all this way.  A short bolt of fame, of public visibility, might have been all she could tolerate or all she wanted.  William Faulkner said of fame that his ideal would have been to have written his books without his name on the title page — to do the work and remain anonymous.  Pat Kirby leaves us under an hour of musical evidence of the finest kind imaginable, and then she made her exit.  Thank goodness we have the records, because who would believe this tale otherwise?

I’d love to know more, if only to honor one of the finest — and least heralded — singers I’ve ever heard.

P.S.  (“This just in!”) Music scholar Bob Moke told me on Facebook that Pat is the speaking voice in the middle of this famous record.  The singing voice at the start is Lois Winters — all confirmed by one of the Lads.  Any snippet of Miss Kirby is greatly appreciated:

May your happiness increase!

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10 responses to “MY SEARCH FOR PAT KIRBY

  1. Reminds me of a Doris Day singing the song she should have recorded?

  2. I wonder if that might be Dick Hyman on piano. I seem to recall he was on some of those Decca dates during that time.

  3. Hyman was everywhere!

  4. Doug Connah

    In the summer of 1955, I was a 20-year-old NBC page (usher, gofer, uniformed man-of-all-work) at its Hollywood studios and while there worked often on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. Pat Kirby was one of four regular vocalists on the show that summer. The others were Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.

    They all were young, not much older than I. Steve and Eydie were already a couple and by then may even have been married. When duets were sung Eydie sang with Steve and Pat with Andy.

    The show’s NBC home base in those days was New York, but it spent that summer in Hollywood because Allen was making a movie, “The Benny Goodman Story,” in which he starred as Goodman. I haven’t seen the movie in many decades—it may have sunk like a rock—but knowing what we now know about Goodman’s temperament, I think I can say that there wasn’t a word of truth in it.

    I adored Pat Kirby and her gorgeous singing voice. The tune of hers I’ve always best remembered is “I’m Glad There Is You” and its beautiful melody and lyrics: “In this world of ordinary people/extraordinary people/I’m glad there is you…” I remember her as beautiful, soft-spoken, polite, and without a shred of guile or ego or showbiz swagger.

    The studio orchestra comprised L.A. session and jazz instrumentalists and was terrific. I particularly recall Milt Bernhart, the fine Kenton trombonist (who later in life had some choice Goodman stories to tell), and George Van Eps, the seven-string guitarist. Although Allen’s NY conductor, Skitch Henderson, made the trip and worked the show briefly, he returned to New York and the Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo took over for him.

    The show of course was a magnet for jazz players and other musical guest artists, from Erroll Garner to June Christy to Debby Reynolds to Leonard Bernstein, who had recently composed the score for “On the Waterfront.”

    When summer ended, the show went back to New York. If memory serves, it was then that Pat Kirby left the show and moved back to Philadelphia. At some point I heard, perhaps erroneously, that she had married a stockbroker. It was show business’s loss, for certain.

  5. Doug (if I may), I’m speechless. With gratitude. Bless you.

  6. Richard Salvucci

    Her high school in Philly is still around, and I find their alumni offices are sometimes very helpful. I once called West Catholic about Gerry Mulligan. He never graduated, but they found him in their records.

  7. Doug’s observation ll “I remember her as beautiful, soft-spoken, polite, and without a shred of guile or ego or showbiz swagger” perfectly describes the person we hear in her singing. I do believe that’s what you’re so smitten with, Michael (if I may). 🙂

  8. Of course you may. I was also smitten by Doug’s generosity of spirit. Not all artists are as wonderful as their art, but nothing I’ve learned about Miss Kirby contradicts any goodness I hear and perceive. And I like being smitten, although not smited.

  9. dennis olivares

    Nice chops, but a bit oversold!
    I was expecting another Annette Hanshaw– introduced to me over the radio by Rob Bamberger on his Hot Jazz Saturday Night– who crushed all resistance outta me about 30 years ago. This new gal is quite polished and with phrasing somewhere south of Peggy Lee, but as an avid fan of both Arthur Godfrey and Steve Allen, it’s no wonder I failed to go to battle-stations when this CHICK (yes, I said it!) blipped on my radar screen.
    Maybe it’s that cath-girl-school thang that’s got all the guys all atwit…?

  10. Dennis, there’s no accounting for taste. Maybe you should start a counter-blog?

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